- SPIN Rating:7 of 10
Label: Season of Mist
Lately, droves of metal bands seem to be letting go of metal a little, while somehow still getting heavier. Torche, who began life as sludge-metal miscreants employing a "bomb string" for extra terror, went full-on "alt" on last year's Harmonicraft, emblazoning its cover with pink dragons, no less. Meanwhile, those one-time throat-torturers Baroness, whose guitarists were always as rigidly rhythmic as their drummer, transformed into an almost-ready-for-prime-time hard-rock band on the widely celebrated double-dip Yellow and Green. You may remember it as SPIN's favorite metal album of 2012.
And then there's Savannah, Georgia's Kylesa, which began life in 2001 as a coed collective of Accüsed-loving crust-metal outliers, and have dwelled on the fringe ever since. But as the title of their sixth record, Ultraviolet, suggests, they've crossed into a new dimension, dabbling in death rock and flirting with grunge, an evolution forecast on 2006's Time Will Fuse Its Worth, wherein they added a second drummer (Melvins-style!) and expanded their sound. Most recently, they tripped the light fantastical on a messy, metallic cover of Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun," and got extra psychedelic on their last LP, 2010's Spiral Shadow, which introduced them to a larger (though still very metal-oriented) audience. Still, they retained an audible, angry through-line back to their 2002 self-titled debut.
On Ultraviolet, that line is barely there, enabling a breakthrough in the rawest sense of the word. Had Kylesa kept to the strictly monochromatic sound of their early work, they would have surely faded away by now. But here they sound rejuvenated, and their excursions jive well with their core sound, which now sounds open and malleable. And while there's still an occasional over-reliance on rough-hewn, tried-and-true formulas of shouted gang vocals and over-overdriven guitars, they're heading in the right direction.
At the moment, their metal tendencies still might be too prominent for indie-rock fans (metal fans are traditionally more open to bands getting darker, even if it means less heaviness), but Ultraviolet feels like they're building to something. Call this the equivalent to Meddle, which set Pink Floyd on course for the Dark Side of the Moon smash success to come.
Unlike Baroness, who used careful sequencing (and Yellow and Green's epic length) to ease the wary into the Hard Rock Hot Tub one toe at a time, Kylesa's alt-rock renaissance exists in their own Twilight Zone. Only the opening track here, "Exhale," sports the sort of tone-deaf gang vocals that attracted extreme-rock fans in the early aughts. From there, they start innovating in earnest. Beginning with songs like "Unspoken" and "Grounded," vocalist-guitarist Laura Pleasants sings long, drawn-out mordant lines, just as Ian Curtis once did, allowing the band's sludgy riffing plus a few intermittent growls to build into something slightly heavier.
And while their newfound alt-rock dalliances tend to blur together in the middle for some urgent-sounding tracks marked by temper-tantrum vocals ("What goes around, comes back around," promises "We're Taking This"), they finish strong, never quite denying their metal instincts. "Low Tide" would be a convincing new-wave song in the style of Depeche Mode or maybe Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, thanks to murkily echo-y guitars and synth-y overtones, if it were mixed differently, and if Pleasants' vocalist-guitarist foil Phillip Cope could stop huffing and puffing for a minute and start singing. On "Vulture's Landing," wherein Pleasants actually does sing in a sort of Kim Deal-via-Perry Farrell whine, the band occasionally resorting to its old ways, injecting guttural growls for no reason other than to satisfy some primal urge. And album closer "Drifting" sports some Robin Guthrie-esque guitar doodling, but finishes with more shouting and distortion-drenched guitars. It might not always be pretty, but it works within their heavy confines.
Kylesa still lack the social graces necessary to partake in the hors d'oeuvre at the mainstream/indie-rock cotillion, but with lyrics like "Is this really happening?" and verses about losing control and choking on blood and "broken teeth," they're probably okay with that. The only difference this time around is that, rather than being on the verge of a breakdown, they've evolved their brand of negative rock in a way that finds them on the verge of a breakthrough — broken, bloody teeth and all. If they do join that cotillion, it's because the party (and the parties involved) came to them.